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New report ‘reimagines’ live music venues in Guelph and beyond

In this edition of Following-up, we take a look at the ongoing struggle of small live music venues and a new report that sheds light on the situation
A night at the former eBar in Guelph.

For many Guelphites, music venues such as the iconic Trasheteria and the eBar are but distant memories.

These closures, as well as many others, is a story all too familiar for many cities across the province.

Factors such as higher rents, taxes, redevelopment, lack of supports by governments, and most-recently COVID have all made it difficult for smaller venues to survive.  

A collaboration between Daniel Silver, sociology professor at the University of Toronto Scarborough and co-lead of the Creative Communities Commons at U of T's School of Cities, and Jonathan Bunce, founder of local indie concert promoter Wavelength Music, addresses the need for small venues while highlighting new models of conservation and innovation when it comes to live music spaces.

The recent report ‘reimagining music venues’ looks at live music venues, particularly post-pandemic, when live music was hard-hit by closures and how this impacts cities across the province.  

According to the report, musicians, presenters, venue owners and operators face increasing difficulties in realizing the true value they generate which stifles the growth and diversification of the sector.

Findings from a researchers' survey of the entire ecosystem: artists, presenters/promoters, and audience members in addition to owners/operators. across Ontario, offer five innovative venue models in a report that could help to ensure a 'healthier live-music sector.'

Some 75 per cent of respondents surveyed agreed that music venues in their community are endangered or threatened, 35 per cent do not feel the venues in their neighbourhoods or cities reflect the diversity of those areas, and 80 per cent agree that music venues preserve local culture and memories.

“The small venue is where new artists try out new things. This is where they gain the confidence to go on stage, gain encouragement from audiences, and meet other musicians. This is their gathering space,” Bunce says.

“I learned so much as a musician and met lifelong friends and collaborators from attending and playing at shows and going to gigs,” he said.

But even prior to the pandemic, more venues were closing than opening.

The report says audiences have been increasingly feeling they are getting less for their money and that they have limited options to hear live music in a clean, affordable, and accessible environment.

Musicians feel they are underpaid, while venue promoters and operators face rising rental, property and insurance costs.

“The biggest drops in venues are happening in the highest increasing rent areas. And these areas are understandably experiencing the biggest impacts,” Silver says.

“The 'bar model' has been in place for a long time where venues will make their revenue from bar sales and promoters and musicians will make their revenue from ticket sales. That leads to a lot of smaller places having to operate right on the razor’s edge. It does not take much to knock them over on the other side.”

According to Bunce and Silver, buildings alone can’t tell the whole story. It is the people who inhabit and animate them that need to be heard.

The pair reached out to various community members including artists/musicians, concert presenters/promoters, venue owners/operators, technical staff, music industry workers, and audience members.

The report highlights the Royal City’s long reputation as a socially conscious, neo-hippie college town, with a vibrant, community- oriented music scene going back to the 1970s coffeehouse folk scene and the establishment of the Hillside Festival in the ‘80s.

From the ‘90s to the early ’10s, downtown Guelph was packed with live venues, including the Albion Hotel, Jimmy Jazz, Van Gogh’s Ear and the eBar. Many of these venues are now closed.

Today, Guelph is challenged for accessible performance spaces.

According to the report, live music in Guelph has been slower to recover from the pandemic, likely related to space challenges and artists moving away in response to the housing crisis, resulting in fewer active groups and performers on the local scene and less disposable income for audience members.

Report findings also show that Guelph has also seen a lack of civic support compared to other cities province wide.

“In spite of some grants from its tourism division, members of the grassroots music scene feel their community is overlooked by the City of Guelph, and one interviewee claimed Guelph was the “one of the least funded cities in Ontario for arts and culture,” the report says.

Venues often rely on alcohol sales as a primary source of revenue.

But according to the report, recent studies show younger people consume less alcohol, which further explains a growing need to reconsider and potentially diversify how venues build their business models around drink sales.

The report identifies and explores potential models including cultural land trusts, the use of mobile stage trucks that can bring live music to outdoor public areas, utilizing spaces such as churches, parks or beaches, multidisciplinary arts centres that typically involve a music presenter or venue partnering with arts groups working in other disciplines, such as film, dance, theatre, comedy and visual art.

In Guelph, the legendary eBar, now the artBar, an office space by day, and a performance arts venue by night, offering a safe space for equity-seeking communities and the LGBT2QA+ community.

“It is great to hear places like the Guelph Arts Council opening up the artBar in the eBar space. This is an interesting new model from the arts by taking a former club, and using it as an affordable event space for the community,” Bunce says.

“Municipalities can consider more of a music strategy in their culture plan. So the idea of a stage truck for live music for example, that can allow more to happen at parks rather than your traditional downtown cores where you would typically see clubs, venues and concert halls,” Bunce says.

" There’s so many creative ways to animate spaces that are affordable and accessible to artists but there has to be that vision by policy makers, by cities, and the province to actually invest in these spaces and empower communities to activate these spaces,” Bunce says.

Non-traditional spaces can include churches, galleries, community centres, parks or backyards. 

“We are in a time right now where we are seeing rapid growth and changes in our zoning and land use policies in the province. This is a big opportunity to be forward looking and proactive," Silver says.

“This is an interesting time for places like Guelph. We are in a growth mode. Let's make sure that these ideas are not only in the music community, but also in the artistic, cultural, and economic community planning, so that we can build communities that people want to live in.”

Bunce says small music venues are an essential part of a community’s cultural fabric.  

“It’s about the loss of opportunity, wondering where bands are going to play, and where we will hear new music,” Bunce says.

“But it’s also about the experiences, memories and emotions that pour into these spaces."